Eugene Lang is an adjunct professor in the School of Policy Studies at Queen’s University and a fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute. David Perry is vice-president and senior analyst at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.
Imagine the following scenario. It’s January, 2021, and Donald Trump has just been inaugurated to serve a second term as President of the United States. Enough Americans were willing to forgive Mr. Trump his sins and re-elect him, as they have done for every incumbent president who has presided over a strong economy since the Second World War.
That same January, Canada is elected to the United Nations Security Council, achieving a major objective of Justin Trudeau’s government. Canada is now “back” in the world, sitting at the big table with the world’s power brokers – China, Russia, the United States, Britain and France, the five permanent members of the Security Council – for the first time in 20 years.
Later that year, some Latin American tinpot dictator raises Mr. Trump’s ire. A now even more unrestrained and emboldened President authorizes a unilateral “limited and targeted” military intervention that is clearly aimed at regime change in this historic U.S. sphere of influence.
It’s a clear violation of international law, an affront to the values of the UN, a challenge to the United States’ allies. The Security Council is called into an emergency session. The United States is isolated on the council. What does Canada do? We cannot hide in that room, and Mr. Trump wants and expects Canada’s support.
Which raises a fundamental question. Why does Mr. Trudeau’s government want so badly for Canada to be a member of the UN Security Council? It’s not always in our interest to be part of that club. As former prime minister Jean Chrétien told his foreign minister Bill Graham in the lead-up to the Iraq war in 2003 – “Thank God we’re not on the UN Security Council; our diplomats work all their careers to get us on the Security Council but there are times like this when you don’t want to be on it.”
For the foreign service, however, the reasons for pursuing a Security Council seat are powerful and worth the risks. Membership gives us prestige in the world, privileged access on which one cannot put a price, knowledge and intelligence of global issues that we would not otherwise have and some influence in the big global peace and security files. And we’re not on the hook permanently for the blood and treasure that comes with being a real global power broker. It’s a no-brainer.
A Security Council seat is important enough to Mr. Trudeau’s government that it has motivated, in part, its painstaking decision for Canada to take on a limited role in the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA), which Ottawa likes to call “peacekeeping.” Participation in MINUSMA, it is believed, will help Canada secure a seat on the council.
Oddly, Mr. Trudeau’s government seems to believe Canada will extricate itself from MINUSMA – the most dangerous UN mission in the world today – in 12 months. Good luck with that, especially if your aim is to get on the Security Council, and if Canada’s contribution of helicopters in Mali proves to be of real utility.
To date, Canadians have been given no reason why the government is going to such lengths to win a Security Council seat. What is the agenda Canada wants to pursue through membership on the council? The absence of a rationale leaves the impression that for Canada a seat on the Security Council is an end in itself, rather than a means to an end. A more cynical interpretation is that this is motivated by a Canadian conceit and sanctimony that the world – and hence the Security Council – simply needs more Canada as its Moralizer-in-Chief.
That is too harsh a judgment. But in the absence of anything from the government explaining its ambitions, it’s easy to conclude that the Security Council campaign is little more than a vanity project.